Visiting Northern Italy

By Yale Braunstein on 15 July 2009
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Many business travelers head south for the weather, Italian food and wine, and the “Northern Italy” experience. DSC00053This section describes some of the cities and towns just off of the A22 (the Autostrada del Brennero), which is the main toll road running north-to-south through the region. It starts at the Brennerpaß, south of Innsbruck and the Europa Bridge. Signposted as “Passo del Brennero” in Italy, it is the lowest pass (1370 m) through the Alps. The northern parts of this area were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up to World War I.  Italian and German are the official languages and except in Bolzano proper, there are more German speakers than Italian speakers.  Indeed, many speak both languages fluently.

Officially, the northern part is the “Südtirol” (South Tyrol) or “Alto Adige”, and both the German and Italian names are used here for most locales. The southern part, “Trentino”, is almost all Italian-speaking. Many of the towns and cities covered here are just off the A22, but there are several other interesting destinations that are quite close–Lake Garda to the west, the Dolomites and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to the east, for example. (Locales are listed generally from north to south.)

Vipiteno/Sterzing This small town just south of the Austrian/Italian border is perfect for a pleasant lunch stop en route.

DSC00054Brixen/Bressanone (Third largest city in the northern part of the region; population ca. 20,000.) Attractive market city with interesting Baroque Cathedral and Palace. Locally famous hotel: Hotel Elephant.

Bozen/Bolzano (Largest city in the region; population approx. 100,000.) More industrial and commercial than the others, but with an attractive older center. Home of the Alpini High Command (somewhat equivalent to the U.S. 10th Mountain Division); look for their distinctive uniforms and hats. Bolzano has several castles, churches, and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (with  its most famous occupant, Ötzi). Among the other interesting sites are Walther Square, with a statue of Walther von der Vogelweide, the German minstrel, and the World War I Victory Monument, built by Mussolini in 1928 (photo here). Bolzano’s 20th Century history is somewhat controversial and there are several versions. Mussolini encouraged Italian industry to build facilities here in the 1930s. The reasons given at the time were to de-centralize industry from its base in Turin and Milan with the prospect of war and to support regional development. (For example, Lancia built a truck and transmission factory on Via Volta in Bolzano.  Some now claim this was part of a conscious effort to “Italianize” the region and reduce the Germanic linguistic and cultural heritage. Recommended hotels include the Park Laurin and the Walther.

Meran/Merano (Second largest city among this northern group; population ca. 36,500. DSC00052Not to be confused with Murano, the island near Venice. Merano and Bolzano are connected by the MEBO, a limited-access, non-toll parkway.) Meran is a beautiful spa city, built on either side of the Passer/Passino river. The most famous attraction is the spa, now a modern facility designed by Milanese architect Matteo Thun. Other interesting sights include the two river promenades, the ornate Kurhaus, and the Trauttmansdorff Castle (with gardens). There is also an arcaded shopping street–Via Portici or Laubengasse . There are several classic older hotels in the center, on the north side of the river (e.g., the Hotel Palace, the Meranerhof, and the Westend). On the south side is the Steigenberger Hotel Therme Meran, a modern upscale hotel across from the new spa. Outside of the city center are an almost infinite number of guest houses, vacation lodges, and other accommodations. (Castel Fragsburg is now an R&Ch property.) There are many interesting mountain walking trails, breweries (Birreria Forst), and Speck Tirolese producers. There are frequent outdoor concerts in the Summer. Kallmünz, in the downtown area, is an extraordinary restaurant. Other highly regarded restaurants include the Altmeraner Gaststätte “Santner Klause”, the Sissi, and the spa’s cafe. Also recommended are the König and the Imperial pastry shops, both in Corso Libertà.

Meran may very well be the nicest small city in Europe. If visiting, the Pergola Residence, a modern country manor on Via Cassiano in the hills just outside of town (officially in Algund/Lagundo), is highly recommended.

There are interesting castles in the Merano area and surrounding mountain villages. Schloß Labers is said to have housed the SS, Nazi loot, and the famous counterfeit British five-pound notes.  Tyrol Castle (Schloß Tirol/Castel Tirolo) is in Dorf and has several museums. There is a museum focused on Ladin, the third language of the area, in Ćiastel de Tor (in St. Martin in Thurn).

Kastelruth/Castelrotto is ca. 70 km northeast of Trento and 20 km northeast of Bolzano. The central town square is historically interesting and a popular meeting place weekday afternoons at 14:45 (end of the school day for the youngest children) and on Sundays.
Trento (Largest city in Tentino; population ca. 55,000 in the city and 110,000 in the broader “township”.) Trento has several interesting palaces and churches, including its Duomo (Cathedral of St. Vigilius). Check out the Via Manzi for its mix of architectural styles. Most famous for the Council of Trent (mid 16th century) and the beginning of the counter-reformation. Has several 4-star hotels and four Michelin 1-star restaurants within a 5-mile radius.

There are winter and summer resorts to the east (and “above”) Trento in Folgaria, Lavarone and Luserna. This part of the Trentino Plateau had early Bavarian settlements and, at times, sought to be self-governing. The resorts are less fancy and the roads less exciting than those near Cortina, but the area is quite pleasant.

Verona (Population ca. 300,000; at the junction of the A22 and the A4–the Milan-to-Venice Autostrada.) Famous for Juliet’s balcony and the Roman-era arena, but there is much more to see  in this UNESCO world heritage city.  Among the sites related to more modern history, the Santuario della Madonna di Lourdes (at Forte San Leonardo / Werk San Leonardo from the Habsburg days) was used to incarcerate and torture allied troops, Jews, and anti-fascist suspects when Verona became part of the Repubblica di Salò in the last years of WWII. Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, was tried for plotting against the republic; he was executed on the banks of the Adige with many other officers on what is now Via Columbo.

At this point you can go west on the A4 to Lake Garda (especially Sirmione at the southern end or Salò and Gardone Riviera with “Il Vittoriale” on the west shore), Brescia (industrial, but with a nice Mille Miglia museum), and Bergamo (with its walled upper town). Or you can go east to Padua and Venice. If you want to see the Giotti paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, you MUST book ahead during peak season, usually by a week or more. There are numerous city hotels, guest houses, and resort hotels in this region. The Garda area is a famous center of the “slow food” movement, so there are truly many exceptional dining options.

Modena. The Duomo is Romenesque (of course) and has an interesting museum. The Biblioteca Estense is one of the great libraries of Italy, and the associated Galleria has a famous collection of paintings and terracotta. Several excellent restaurants. But, you probably want to go for the cars. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and De Tomaso are produced in or around Modena. One option is to go in late April or early May for the Modena Terra di Motori, which fills the town square with classic cars. The official tourist agency has information about automobile-related  activities and museums.

Bologna (Population ca. 375,000).  One of the great cities in Italy and home of its oldest university (and possibly the oldest university in Europe). Home to fantastic food. Bologna has an arcaded city center; historic gates and other structures; the usual duomo, basilicas and churches; an architecturally interesting central train station (designed by Gaetano Ratti); and a botanical garden. Both Luigi Galvani and Guglielmo Marconi taught at the university. Ducati is headquartered here. There are numerous hotels at all price points, with the Grand Hotel Baglioni one of the great luxury hotels of Italy, with prices to match. The central square is actually two adjacent squares (Piazza Maggiore e del Nettuno) in the center of the red-roofed old city. At the square are city hall and several palaces. The National Art Gallery is just north of the university.  Bologna now has a restricted traffic zone (ZTL) in the city center. If you are driving, you must make advanced arrangements with your hotel 48 hours in advance to be authorized to enter.

Parma (Population ca. 175,000. Before you go, read John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza.) Parma is 65 km the west of Modena (and therefore also to the west of Bologna) via the A1 or the S9. Visit the Palazzo della Pilotta (with the Academy of Fine Arts), the Palazzo Ducale (Palazzo del Giardino), and Casa Toscanini. Justly famous for its cheese and dry-cured prosciutto, the food is top-quality. ViaMichelin has a food-related tour here.

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